There is no ‘second Europe’ coming to Iran’s rescue - analysis

Serbia is one of the few European countries publicly pursuing stronger ties with Tehran.

 Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria November 29, 2021.  (photo credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria November 29, 2021.
(photo credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

As world powers return to the nuclear negotiating table, who in the West is pulling for Iran?

Few, if any, according to a number of experts. And even those states which are soft on the Islamic Republic largely take that posture as a hedge, at the behest of others, or as an alternative preferable to conflict, rather than as sympathies toward the regime.

“The Europeans largely look at the nuclear deal as one negotiated in good faith by the administration of Barack Obama and others. Then, the United States pulls out, and Europe feels it’s the US that transgressed. They look at Afghanistan, the Iraq invasion, Libya and Syria, and none of these conflicts were good for them. So, it’s fairly simple for most of Europe: They’re not necessarily on Iran’s side in the negotiations, but they prefer diplomacy to war,” Kambiz Foroohar, former chief political strategist at Medley Global Advisors, told The Media Line.

As talks pick back up in Vienna on Monday in an effort by the US and European powers to bring Iran back to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, diplomats say time is nearly running out to resurrect the pact, which then-US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other world powers involved – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Six rounds of talks, including indirect talks between Iran and the United States, were held between April and June. The new round begins after a hiatus triggered by the election of a new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric.

 Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER) Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)

“The Trump administration, whether it made the right or wrong decision, did a bad job of messaging and promoting the ideas behind its withdrawal. There was never a good case made to get the rest of the world behind it. Countries like France and Germany aren’t blind to the nature of the Iranian regime. But they have commercial interests with Iran, and they don’t want to deal with immigration resulting from another military crisis in the region, so they don’t want to push hard,” said Foroohar, an Iranian-American whose wife was the target of an audacious Iranian kidnapping plot this summer, uncovered by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Since the outset of the Raisi government, several influential Iranian media outlets have put forward the recycled idea of a ‘Second Europe’ as a pillar of Iran’s European policy, in which Iran could capitalize on the fragmented state of the European Union and the internal divisions over Europe’s Iran policy to build economic and political ties with key European states outside of the troika of France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Targets include Austria, Belgium, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, whose interests, in the view of the policy’s architects, could be aligned with Iran’s. But Iran has received little help from those countries, even in humanitarian-related calls for assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The likes of Denmark, Sweden and Belgium are taking a tough line on Iran. They all have had recent cases of Iranian terrorists on their soil. In Belgium’s case, it was an Iranian diplomat convicted of a terror plot. Poland has been taking a much more adversarial role, as well,” Foroohar said.

Still, other governments like Serbia have publicly and seemingly proudly proclaimed a desire to strengthen ties with Tehran. Serbian Ambassador to Iran Dragan Todorovic said last month that the two countries enjoy a good political relationship and capacity for economic cooperation in a number of fields, including produce and construction. A month earlier, Todorovic said that relations between the two countries were "at its best state in history."

Todorovic said the main challenge at the moment is financial transactions due to sanctions against Iran.

"Our goal is to form a joint economic commission between Iran and Serbia," the Serbian envoy also noted, adding: "Each of us are planning to have our own special economic zone in Iran and Serbia."

In 2017, there were serious attempts to increase economic cooperation between Belgrade and Tehran. Serbia abolished visas for Iranians and, in 2018, the two countries resumed direct flights after a gap of 27 years. However, after strong pressure from the EU, Serbia reintroduced visas for Iranian nationals, and Iran Air discontinued flights between Tehran and Belgrade.

“The Islamic Republic does not recognize the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo – where Muslims make up 95% of the population – and sees the territory as part of Serbia, while Belgrade never supports any anti-Iranian declarations or resolutions in the global arena,” Nikola Mikovic, a Serbia-based political analyst, told The Media Line.

The level of economic cooperation between the two countries is very low. For instance, in 2019 the balance of trade between Serbia and Iran was only $38.89 million. By comparison, in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the balance of trade between Serbia and Israel was $81.46 million. Also, for the former Yugoslavia, Iran was probably the most important economic partner in Asia, with a balance of trade of $800 million. In 2017, the balance of trade between all former Yugoslav republics and Iran did not even reach $200 million.

“The future of Serbian-Iranian relations will undoubtedly depend on the EU’s position, although Serbia will not join the bloc any time soon, if at all. Still, given that Brussels seems to be trying to improve ties with Tehran, the EU likely gave Belgrade the green light to deepen economic cooperation with the Islamic Republic, but at this point it is very improbable that direct flights will be resumed, or the visa-free regime introduced. Any form of military cooperation is also very unlikely, since that is something that the West would firmly oppose,” Mikovic explained.

Serbia, of course, maintains close ties with Russia, which has been an ally to Iran, both inside and outside the contours of the JCPOA.

“The Russians are seen by the Iranians as allies who can push for their interests, but Tehran is ultimately suspicious of Russian motives. It’s not like they have many alternatives in Europe, though,” said Foroohar, who believes at this point that European posture toward Tehran will be shaped by how Iran plays its hand in Vienna.

Western diplomats say they will head to Monday's talks on the premise that they resume where they left off in June. They have warned that if Iran continues with its maximalist positions and fails to restore its cooperation with the IAEA, then it will have to quickly review its options.

Iran's top negotiator and foreign minister, meanwhile, both repeated on Friday that a full lifting of sanctions would be the only thing on the table in Vienna.

“If Iran continues to enrich uranium up to 60%, and incorporates more advanced centrifuges, it brings the timeline down to weeks, which is a very dangerous situation,” said Foroohar, referring to the "breakout time" Iran needs to amass enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon, which experts believes stands now at four to six weeks.

“How the Iranians respond to negotiations can make life tougher for them. If Iran is being belligerent in its demands, it might finally give the Europeans –and for that matter, the Americans – the cover they think they need to tow a harder line,” Foroohar said.

If that becomes the case, Iran will seemingly have few European allies to turn to, outside of Russia’s sphere of influence.